If trees could talk, they could tell us
how human life is captured, controlled, possessed. They've seen
it all, Hamiet Bluiett thought the first time he walked
the grounds of the old tobacco plantation in Upper Marlboro
that is now home to a weird little recording studio called
Discarded cars lounged in
the shade. The undergrowth was aggressive and unruly. He moved
slowly, his big baritone saxophone in hand, toward what once were
the fields. Then Bluiett stopped to glance back at the Tuscan
columns of the mansion house, and sensed a presence that prompted
him to reconsider his path.
Bluiett, 54, an artist who
ranks high in both the avant-garde and rear guard of jazz, was
seeking a respectful and more righteous way to record masters
of African American music. He had come to Mapleshade Studio thinking
this might be it. Then again, he thought, it might be just another
rip-off for black musicians, another place where culture is appropriated
and pockets are shortchanged.
"I walked through the
fields and talked, talked to God. Said, 'Please tell me if I'm
doing the right thing. If I'm doing anything to hurt my people,
stop me, give me a stroke, anything. 'Cause I'm serious about
this," Bluiett says. "I thought about how many of my people had
been whipped on those trees, how many women were molested. I did
my libation to the plantation, to the ghosts of Mapleshade past."
Then he wrote an excruciatingly
painful tune called Runaway, and he told the studio's white
engineer that it had to be performed and recorded outside, "because
this is about somebody trying to get away from y'all."
The engineer - Pierre Sprey,
who is also Mapleshade's founder, president and resident - took
no offense. "I agree with most of his perceptions," says Sprey,
57, whose French parents raised him in this country to have "pro-black
inclinations." The spirit of Runaway couldn't have been
contained by the studio, which is set up in the front parlor of
Sprey's old house. It was too huge.
So Sprey lugged all his recording
equipment out onto the mansion's monumental neoclassical portico,
which, he was relieved to find, had the acoustics of a band shell.
And Bluiett blew a solo that Sprey says "sounded like the voice
of God." Like a prayer answered.
Two years after his first
visit to Mapleshade, Bluiett is now producing a series of recordings
there featuring underappreciated and underexposed virtuosos.
Sprey himself plays no instruments,
"never had any gift for it." But for years he made amateur recordings
of jazz in clubs and at concerts. More than a hobby, it provided
a balance for his day job. An aeronautical engineer and statistician
by training, Sprey was a principal designer of the A-10 and F-16
fighter jets. While at the Pentagon, he also helped launch the
military reform movement of the 1980s. Back then, Sprey denounced
corruption and championed simplicity, arguing that you could ruin
weapons by loading them down with too many sophisticated, expensive
He gradually eased his way
out of the defense industry to make the recording of music his
major work, but Sprey is still wedded to simplicity. The entirety
of his studio technique is listed, with plenty of room to spare,
on the leaf-green T-shirts he had printed for Mapleshade: "NO
Mixing Board, NO Overdubs, NO Noise Reduction, NO Compression,
NO Multitracks, NO Reverb, NO EQ, Nothing BUT The Excitement of
Live Music, MUSIC WITHOUT COMPROMISE."
Sprey employs a heavily modified
old-fashioned open-reel tape recorder to make analog recordings,
and avoids going into a digital format until the last step of
his production - and only then so the music can be pressed onto
compact discs by a small company called Nimbus in Ruckersville,
Like many audiophiles, Sprey
believes that translating music into numbered code creates a concoction
that is cleaner than it is real, too perfect for people, sound
with no soul.
"Digital is like a horrible
step backwards," Sprey says. "You have to use your ear to sort
out where the new technology helps the music and where it hurts...especially
with the most expensive and most complex stuff that conventional
studios are using."
Bluiett calls the Mapleshade
approach "the next wave in recording."
"Being an artist is
not about being perfect," Bluiett says, "it's about being good.
I'm coming from another kind of perspective. See, I don't need
perfection. It's already perfect. You understand?"
"What we are doing now
is sort of like revolutionizing a lot of stuff, trying to take
the sound and everything back to what the sound should really
be about - instead of what the industry is demanding, or what
they come up with, which is not really top-level.... They spend
all this time taking the music apart and then putting it back
together, supposedly to make you sound like you sounded from the
very beginning. They have gotten so far away from real life and
into the technology that it's pitiful."
But they only defeat themselves
by trying to surpass the sounds, the nature, of life.
What used to be called the
"record business," back when Bluiett began performing professionally,
quickly grew to become the "record industry," and now is metamorphosing
into global conglomerations like Time Warner and MCA. As a result,
Sprey claims, decision-makers at the major labels are so far removed
from the creative process that the artists they choose to record
are often as ill-prepared as the recordings themselves.
"The jazz end of recording
is being run like a smaller clone of the pop industry," says Sprey.
"If a big company decides to take on a young artist, they know
they're facing a quarter-million-dollar investment in publicity
and tours and radio promotions and all that, so they want to make
sure that they've got some kid that they can create a whole story
around - he's from New Orleans and he's 19 years old and he plays
classical music, too, and he went to Yale - all of which has nothing
to do with making great jazz...
"If you look at the
labels that are the real history of bebop - Prestige, Riverside,
Blue Note - and the people that ran them, they were all people
who really loved jazz and knew it. They weren't all sweethearts,
and some of them screwed musicians to a fare-thee-well, but what's
astonishing is how few poor records they put out. You look at
Blue Note today, now that it's owned by [Capitol/EMI], and they
put out an astonishing sequence of bad records. When they put
out a good one, everybody's surprised."
Sprey is saying all this as
he piles ears of sweet Maryland corn, husks intact, into the oven.
He cooks, he cleans, he records, he wheels, he deals, he drives
the "Mapleshade Stretch," a crunched-up '87 Chevy Nova, chauffeuring
musicians to and from airports and train stations. Trim and fit,
clad in Khaki shorts, he does it all. Everything technical or
logistical, that is.
Bluiett sits quietly, introspectively,
at the kitchen table, waiting to eat and thinking about the recording
session he will begin producing the next day. His eyes are half-closed,
as always, which makes him look meditative, sleepy, or mad. His
shoulders are rounded by the weight of the big baritone sax that
has hung from his neck all these years. The iron-gray streaks
in his hair and beard, the gruff voice, the stern bearing - combined,
they bring to mind the Old Testament prophets.
He clears his throat constantly,
as if he is always about to play. He doesn't speak all that much,
but when he does, it's often to r estate a theme in a tone that's
as bluesy as his music.
"You only get recorded
twice in life," Bluiett says, "when you're young and when you're
old. Once you get to be about 90 years old and you're about to
die and you really don't need to be running all over the world,
then they want you to run all over the world and play.
In the middle, you're lucky if you can work."
That's true of more than a
few musicians, but Bluiett's plight is hardly that grim - though
he has to scramble sometimes to pay the rent on his Manhattan
apartment. "The way I play, they're not gonna ask me on 'The Tonight
Show,'" he says. Bluiett roves over five octaves - 5‡ "when the
spirit's with me" - sounding sometimes like elephants trumpeting
and farting. He also plays the blues down and dirty, and in the
next breath he might take you to church. Despite, or perhaps because
of his eccentricities, he has been well recorded during his career.
Especially considering the back seat that has traditionally been
assigned his horn - far from the spotlight, and usually only in
"It's a workhorse,"
Bluiett says. "If you play something like baritone saxophone,
you almost have to make your own way, create your own work, come
up with your own parts."
Which he has. India Navigation
is preparing to re-issue Bluiett's 1977 "Birthright," which the
label's owner, Bob Cummins, says is certainly the first and probably
the only unaccompanied solo baritone saxophone record ever made.
Mapleshade is hitting the stores this week with a new CD called
Young Warrior, Old Warrior by a Bluiett Sextet that includes
Jack Walrath on trumpet, Mark Shim on tenor sax,
Larry Willis on piano, Keter Betts on bass and
Jimmy Cobb on drums. And Mapleshade is following that up with
something called If Trees Could Talk, a recording of duets
inspired by the studio's plantation setting played by Bluiett
and Willis, who is Mapleshade's musical director.
Nevertheless, musicians have
advised Bluiett for years to change instruments. Back in the early
'70s, when he was playing in Charles Mingus's quintet, even Mingus
- a particularly iconoclastic composer - told Bluiett that his
life would be easier and he'd work a lot more if he switched to
the higher-profile alto saxophone.
"But that's not my horn,"
Bluiett always replied.
"He really is a leader
and a major thinker in terms of the way he wants his music to
sound," tenor player David Murray said in a telephone interview.
"A lot of people go with the flow, but Bluiett is the kind to
create the wave."
Murray and Bluiett, along with alto players
Oliver Lake and the late Julius Hemphill, formed the critically
acclaimed World Saxophone Quartet nearly 20 years ago. In that
group and others, Bluiett motivated players to take bigger chances
with their music, to be more imaginative in their ensembles.
This talent gradually developed into his work as a producer,
for his own groups and for others.
His decision to record Fontella
Bass with the World Saxophone Quartet was typical. Matching a
singer who last hit big in 1965 with her song Rescue Me with an
avant-garde jazz group was far from an obvious move - until he
did it. Bass immediately tapped into the quartet's deep R&B and
gospel roots, creating a sound considerably different from anything
it had done before. The 1994 recording, called Breath of Life,
made the charts, and Bass's career is now snapping back into gear.
Bluiett has come to think
of himself as a musical make-over artist. "You know those talk
shows where they show the 'before' picture, then they bring the
woman out from the back and she look gorgeous and everyone says
'Wow'?" "I've started doing that with musicians," he says, "I
nip, snip, do this, do that, take their old suit and give it back
to them looking like the tailor made it. I know how to take something
to the end and say, 'That's the end of it.' And walk away. But
a whole lot of creative people, left to their own devices, they
think so damn much, they never stop."
Techniques of transformation
came naturally to Bluiett. Growing up in Brooklyn, Ill., a township
founded on the Mississippi by free blacks in 1837, he was surrounded
by quick-change artists. People who looked one way during the
day, and entirely another way at night. Like, presto. With the
setting of the sun began the real business of the town, which
had no blue laws. An aunt and uncle went to work as glamorous
club owners. His father took charge of a craps table, which he
ran big, Vegas-style. The neighbors who played music in church
on Sunday suited up to play in the bar bands. People came from
all over the open plains, the g et-in-the-car-and-go region that
produced Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Clark Terry, as well
as Jr. Walker, Chuck Berry and Redd Foxx.
"We were like wild horses,
used to space and running free," says Bluiett. "Out in the Midwest,
we had Geronimo and all that [stuff] all up in us too. Underground
Railroad stops. It was a different way of thinking. It was the
drum 'n' bugle corps all mixed up with hoot 'n' holler gospel.
We got barbecued up in that church. Slow cooking. It was heavy
blues country. Afro-gospel-blues country, where you had to sing
a blues so hard that you hurt everybody next to you, and whoever
left 'em ain't no good 'cause he hurt, and everybody else hurt,
and that'll make you think about who you left, or who you gonna
leave tonight, or maybe I better go get my woman now, or something."
It was French-West territory,
with St. Louis right across the river and New Orleans just downstream.
Laissez-faire reigned. "Meaning they left our black asses alone,"
Bluiett says. "So we got a chance to come up with our own brand
of whatever it was. All of that is missing to me here on the other
side of the Appalachians and the Alleghenies."
All that freedom, space. All
that churning. One of the reasons Bluiett enjoys producing music
so much is that he can listen to artists perform and know precisely
how they'd be different in another world. It's a vision that will
There have been artists who visited Mapleshade
to size it up and came away calling it a "mammy-jammy" operation.
Then there have been musicians like the late pianist Walter
Davis Jr., who played with Bird and was mentored by Monk,
who walked in, took a look around and sighed contentedly. "Ah,
Edison's lab," he said, then sat down at Sprey's lovingly rebuilt
1911 Model O Steinway to record solo.
First of all, the mansion
house, which was originally built in the 18th century, appears
from the outside to be a lot more polished than it is within.
The front of the house, which serves as the studio, is devoid
of furniture and jumbled instead with equipment that looks as
if it came from a garage sale. Some of it did. The huge old amp
that Sprey picked up for $200, for example.
Musicians are generally stationed
in the front parlor for recording, while singers and soloists
are set up in the connecting high ceilinged foyer, which provides
natural reverberation. Sprey chose the house for the acoustics
generated by its wood floors and heavy plaster walls. Modern drywall
absorbs bass notes and muddies the sound. He also selected the
house for its remote location - an unmarked turn from Crain Highway,
and far enough down a deeply rutted dirt road that cars can't
be heard passing. The house is so well isolated that there are
no close neighbors to share the transformer on the main power
line. As a result, Sprey says, it gets "cleaner" electricity.
Most of his recording equipment
is battery-powered - the little preamp he uses instead of a mixing
board, the tiny pressure-zone microphones that he modifies until
they are precise enough to pick up the actual click of a drummer's
stick on the cymbal before the ring of the brass; the impact of
the piano's hammers on its strings; the intake of a horn player's
breath across his reed. Amazingly, the change Sprey's equipment
makes in the quality of a recording is not reserved for audiophiles
who can afford $20,000 sound systems; the difference is easily
detectable on an inexpensive boombox.
The only thing Sprey plugs
in to a socket is his tape recorder, and for that he uses expensive,
exotic wires that he spent years researching and developing. They
are about half the diameter of a strand of human hair and are
encased in silver-plated copper tubes. On his battery-powered
amplifiers, Sprey uses wires that he has custom-milled, thin ribbons
of copper wrapped in a saran-looking case made of polypropylene.
"Standard speaker wire
is made of PVC, which is the worst plastic for sound there is,"
he says. "They had much better sounding wire in the '20s, when
they used like a cotton or silk webbing around it."
Sprey does without mixing
boards - which can cost upward of $250,000 when they have 48 or
64 channels, like those used by "state-of-the-art" studios - because
he says they distort sound in transmission.
"You have all these
knobs for adjusting equalization of sound, treble, bass, midrange
and on and on and on," he says. "And each knob represents a set
of amplifiers, so even if each of those amplifiers is brilliantly
designed - which they mostly aren't - through the cascading process,
you remove 1 or 2 percent of the music at every stage, and if
you have 50 stages, you know, three-quarters of the music is gone.
That's what the problem is.
"I have one stage per
mike. That is, I have one set of amplifiers behind each one of
the volume knobs. That's the only control I have....If a horn
player thinks his sound is too bright, then we either change the
acoustics of the room or the position of the mike. But we don't
bandaid by twiddling knobs here. We get it right at the beginning."
Corrupt power sources are
enemies of sound, according to Sprey's creed, so before he records
anything, he unplugs. The refrigerator always, air conditioners
in summer and the furnace in winter. "The oil furnace is bad because
it's got to have ignition, a spark to keep on lighting the flame,
and that spark is almost like a radar jammer or something, it
puts out so much radio frequency energy," he says. "That's one
of the worst devices in the house."
The computer, of course, gets
unplugged. And if a very sensitive recording is underway, the
fax machine and the little charger cradles for the cordless phones
get unplugged, too. The CD player is the biggest offender, Sprey
says. "Nothing will screw up the sound in your home hi-fi, if
you're listening to a record, like turning on a CD player. The
minute you turn it on, you can hear your LP records turn harsh
and dull. That's because it's digital, and all digital devices
put out very high radio frequency energy and pump it back into
In fact, just about anything
that draws power from a wall plug also feeds junk back in. "You
can turn on a fluorescent light and that hurts the music," says
Sprey. So that means when sessions run into the night, he sometimes
records in a mostly darkened house. But one of the policies Mapleshade
prides itself on is that unlike most studios, it doesn't bill
by the hour, so there's no time pressure squeezing the creative
process. In fact, Mapleshade doesn't bill at all.
Sprey puts up the studio time,
the equipment and all expenses against the artist's time and expertise.
They sign a simple, one-page contract that makes them 50-50 partners.
After they've recorded, musicians are even free to shop their
master tapes to other labels, as long as they split the profits
That's because Sprey has never
been entranced by the music business. His love is recording, and
his challenge is doing it as simply and purely as possible. "I
still don't really want to be a label," he says. But as he became
friendly with musicians and they recognized how superior his recordings
were in some respects to commercial studio products, they began
asking him to produce them. Then he was faced with selling his
tapes to an established label, a task that was probably doomed
from the start given his convictions.
"I got interest from
labels, but not too many that wanted to simply buy it as-is,"
he says. "A whole bunch that wanted to mess with it, right? 'Oh,
this is real interesting - if you would add so-and-so to the session.'
Or 'if you would add some reverb to the session.' Or 'if you would
add a background singer.' Right? And everything they wanted would
have worsened the sound.
"But worst of all was
that 95 percent of the time, they were people I had a very hard
time shaking hands with, because they were very slimy, you know?
People had warned me that I would feel that way about the musician
side of it - that I couldn't open up my house to musicians, that
I would have lots of trouble with all kinds of habits, and they
were dead wrong."
Sprey made his first professional
recording in 1986, with singer Shirley Horn. Since then, he has
released 28 CDs commercially and has another 90 or so in the can.
It takes a lot more time to package and market a CD than it does
to record one, and for now, Sprey employs only a couple of part-time
apprentices to help him with the legwork. "The lag is my fault,"
he says. "If I got the packages done quicker, we'd have more albums
out, because they're sitting right there."
On the other hand, Mapleshade
is breaking even, meaning Sprey no longer has to work as a defense
consultant to support himself. And he's doing what he loves.
Inaction, and in Action
The tape is rolling, and Bluiett has assumed
his producer's position. He's prone, eyes closed, on a well-worn
couch in a room adjacent to the studio. Music flows furiously
through the connecting doorway.
"He lies there like
he's in state, and everybody thinks he's asleep," Sprey says.
"Until, you know, suddenly somebody plays something, sometimes
just a lick that he's heard, and he is up out of that couch like
a shot. 'What did you just play? Play that again.' And then something
beautiful grows out of that, because he's been listening like
On this day, Ken McIntyre,
who calls himself Makanda, is before the mikes with 18
instruments he plays. What do you do with 18 instruments? That
was Bluiett's dilemma. But he was determined to record Makanda,
who is attempting to rekindle the performing career that he abandoned
for the security of academia to raise a family. At 63, he is now
retired from the State University of New York at Old Westbury,
where he founded and chaired a department of music, dance and
As a young man on the jazz
scene in the '60s, Makanda was respected and accepted by the masters.
"But he never went along with all the junk in the industry," Bluiett
says. "He hasn't had a record date in I don't know when." Instead,
as the years passed, he taught students - and himself - to play
instrument after instrument after instrument. Eighteen of them.
"Bluiett came up with
what in retrospect seems like a totally simple idea," says Sprey.
"But like all brilliant ideas, it cuts right to the heart of the
problem. Makanda is a great composer, so Bluiett had him compose
a bunch of suites in which he could use every instrument in a
given family. There are only four families of instrument" - reeds,
horns, percussion and strings - "meaning we'll have four suites,
and that's a record."
Makanda, who had two of his
former students perform the compositions with him two weeks ago,
was exhilarated throughout the recording session, he said, by
Bluiett's "artistically liberating" concept.
Another day, during a session
with the veteran Cuban conga player and percussionist Carlos
"Patato" Valdez, Bluiett turned an ensemble on its head, making
Patato's five drums the lead voice, with five horns behind him
as a sort of choir.
"No other conguero
gets as beautiful and melodic sound from the drums," Sprey says,
"mainly because he spends about three times as much tuning them
as playing. And he plays in a beautifully open way that only masters
can, hitting so few notes and expressing so much."
Normally Patato plays with
Latin jazz and salsa bands, so his music comes enveloped in a
larger sound. "It's very hard to pick out how good the conga player
is when you also have a very good timbale player and a very good
bass player and you hear the ensemble of it," Sprey says.
Hamiet Bluiett is rectifying
He's done 14 projects with
Mapleshade so far, and plans to return for plenty more. Old masters
and black classics. New ideas and forgotten streams. Back on the
plantation. But this time getting respect and giving due.